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Classic Movie History Blogathon, Politics and Unrest in Cinema During the Vietnam War, Part 3: The Documentaries

June 28, 2015

This is my part 3 and the final part of my entry for the Classic Movie History Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently), Ruth (Silver Screenings), and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). I’d like to thank them not only for doing a great job (as usual) of hosting, but also of putting up with my last-minute entries once again. Enjoy!

As I argued in my introduction to this series, while the prevailing view of film history is many of the feature films of the late 60’s/early 70’s that dealt with the unrest of the time did so indirectly through either genre or by using the past as a mirror to view the present, there were in fact a few films that tried to confront the chaos and issues of the time directly, with mixed results. But there’s another group of films that dealt with the turmoil and unrest directly, and as always, they tend to get overlooked. That group would be documentaries. As with the Iraq war in the 2000’s, documentary filmmakers took on the Vietnam War, for example, long before feature filmmakers did (or, to be fair, could). All in all, I saw seven documentaries – five features and two shorts – that dealt with the war in some way, and I cover them here. Also, civil rights for African-Americans were better represented through documentaries than through mainstream Hollywood, and I feature documentaries from the two leaders who were considered the yin and yang of African-American rights during the 60’s, as well as one of the leaders of the controversial Black Panthers.


Why are we in Vietnam?”Far From VietnamIn the Year of the PigInterviews with My Lai VeteransWinter SoldierF.T.A.Letter to JaneHearts and Minds.

Still photo from “Far From Vietnam”.

As I mentioned in my post on foreign movies, French artists – as well as many others in France – were among the first to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam, in fact, one of the first (if not the first) documentaries to come out against the war came from France. Far From Vietnam (1967) combined the talents of, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda, all under the supervision of French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Each of them shot, or collected, footage for a short segment, all to help challenge not only U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but also the image the U.S. was presenting to the rest of the world about the war being just and necessary.

As with just about every anthology movie I’ve seen, some segments are better than others. Resnais opts to have Bernard Fresson (who appeared in several of his movies, including Resnais’ previous La Guerre est Finie; he also appeared in Costa-Gavras’ Z) as “Claude Ridder”, a French government official (or perhaps a journalist) who tries to convince a Vietnamese woman (Karen Blanguernon) of the rationale for the war, though it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as well. That’s an interesting and powerful enough premise, but while it’s possible the woman doesn’t speak because she’s bored with, or ignoring, what Ridder says, how much more interesting the segment would have been if she had been allowed to engage him by speaking back, and allowing a true dialectic to be set up. Godard, meanwhile, ponders on whether or not he’s able to even make a film about the war (especially since he’d been denied entry), even though he’s obviously against it. Godard isn’t just talking about himself, it seems, but whether anyone could make a film confronting the war, and while that approach is also not without merit – Atom Egoyan would demonstrate decade, in his highly underrated 2002 film Ararat, that it was possible to make a good film about whether or not art can confront genocide – Godard doesn’t really go anywhere with his segment. Much better are the scenes showing the history of colonial involvement in Vietnam, footage of protests taking place across the United States (as well as people shouting at, or booing, the protesters), and a puppet show depicting the American government’s view of the country. Perhaps the best segment at all deals with the widow of Norman Morrison – the man who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon on November 2, 1965 – Anne Morrison, a Quaker, and her meeting with a Vietnamese woman named Ann Uyen to explain how much she was in favor of her husband’s act. The way the film presents this story simply, without any histrionics, makes it all the more powerful. Far From Vietnam may not be a great documentary, but it’s a good one that does challenge the official story.

Iconic image from “In the Year of the Pig”.

Emile de Antonio may not be a household name as far as filmmakers go, or even documentary filmmakers, and that’s a shame. Point of Order! (1964), his first film, takes on McCarthyism by editing together footage of the Army Hearings and shows just how much of a bully McCarthy was. After collaborating with author Mark Lane on a documentary companion to Lane’s book Rush to Judgment, which challenged the Warren Report’s view of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (which de Antonio stressed, for him, had less to do with any feelings for Kennedy – he wasn’t a fan of almost any politician – than with the fact he felt the U.S. government was lying to its people), de Antonio followed with another film challenging the official narrative given by the U.S. government; In the Year of the Pig (1968), this time on the Vietnam War. Part of this, like Point of Order!, is what de Antonio called “collage cinema”; merely putting together archive footage to tell a narrative, and here, it’s the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (as well as a brief history of French involvement in Vietnam after WWII), from merely sending advisers to sending troops and then escalating the “police action”. We see government and military officials, including presidents (most prominent, of course, is LBJ), generals (Generals Clark, LeMay and Westmoreland), CIA officials (John Foster Dulles) and others justifying U.S. involvement in Vietnam every step of the way, even when things go wrong. We also see footage of wounded soldiers and Vietnamese. Finally, de Antonio has assembled interviews with people speaking out against the war, including activists such as Father Daniel Berrigan, journalists such as David Halberstam, and government officials such as Senator Thurston Morton. As angry as de Antonio is about the policy carried out here – and he’s very angry indeed – he’s careful not to demonize the ordinary, everyday soldiers stuck in the quagmire (we get an interview with a deserter). Also, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of the film (she liked it with some misgivings), de Antonio provides context that the news coverage of the war wasn’t doing at the time, and presenting the U.S. involvement as the Vietnamese might see it. If there’s a weakness in the film (also in Far From Vietnam), it’s de Antonio’s romanticizing of the North Vietnamese (he likens Ho Chi Minh to George Washington), given what happened Vietnam after the U.S. pulled out. Still, without going overboard on trickery, de Antonio’s film remains a stinging and powerful film, and a reminder to question the “official story”.

Scott Camil interviewed in “Winter Soldier”.

Speaking of which, one of the most notorious incidents during the war was, of course, the My Lai massacre, when on May 16, 1968, members of Company C went into a Vietnamese village, which was apparently believed to be a Vietcong stronghold, and ended up killing anywhere between 347 (the U.S. army figures) and 504 people (according to the Vietnamese government), all of them civilians, many of them women (who were also gang-raped) and children (Joseph Strick’s Interviews with My Lai Veterans, a documentary short photographed by Haskell Wexler, interviews five members of Company C about what happened, and we learn they were ordered to treat everyone as an enemy, since they had lost people to booby-trapped bombs left by the Vietcong, and were frustrated at not finding the responsible parties. Strick gets a nice balance of interviews, but the film is too short to do the atrocity justice). Eventually, Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, was the only officer charged in a court-martial concerning the event, and both the military and the government maintained this was an isolated incident. Winter Soldier (1972), a rarely-seen documentary with no director credited (it was made by a collective of several filmmakers and technicians, among them David Grubin and Barbara Kopple), was made to counteract this narrative. It documents the “Winter Soldier Conference” (the term is taken from Thomas Paine’s first “American Crisis” paper, when he wrote of the “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” that shrink from service to their country) sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit from January 31, 1971 to February 2, 1971. Among those veterans who participated was future Secretary of State John Kerry, and he and the other veterans testified as to the atrocities they had witnessed and participated in (there were civilian witnesses as well, though the movie concentrates on the veterans). The movie shows several scenes of testimony, as well as behind the scenes footage of veterans talking to each other, and individual interviews with some of the veterans (most prominently Scott Camil – Graham Nash would later write a song about him called “Oh Camil”, and he’s featured in one of the special features on the DVD). For the most part, the testimony is given in a calm, clear-eyed manner (although one veteran is barely able to choke back tears), making it all the more horrifying and stomach-churning (do not watch it while eating). As a documentary, it’s merely competent on a technical level. Also, while the speeches some African-American veterans give about racism within the Army are probably meant to parallel how the higher-ups viewed the Vietnamese, it still feels shoehorned in. Nevertheless, Winter Soldier remains a powerful corrective to the revisionist view of the Vietnam War that came about long after the war was over, especially when Ronald Reagan became president, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies became popular, and the “Swift Boat” campaign against Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 took place.

Jane Fonda and Steve Alaimo in a sketch from “F.T.A.”.

One of the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation was Jane Fonda, who remains the most polarizing civilian figure involved in the Vietnam War. Fonda, who had started out as apolitical growing up, became radicalized in the late 60’s, and especially became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Along with organizing the Winter Soldier investigation, she also had making talks with veterans across the country so she could listen to their experiences, and in the early 70’s, got involved with a revue-type show – along with then-boyfriend Donald Sutherland – meant to counteract Bob Hope’s USO shows, with their rah-rah patriotism and their cheap humor, which she and many saw as being out of touch with what the veterans were really going through. Originally, the show featured Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman (later best known as Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati and Mr. Moore in Head of the Class), but in an interview included on the DVD, Fonda said she wanted the show to be more inclusive of women and minorities (she admitted she was too strident about this), so singers Len Chandler, Rita Martinson and Holly Near, as well as comedian Paul Mooney, were among those included in a later tour. Women’s rights activist Francine Parker filmed this tour, known, as with the original tour, as F.T.A. (which stood for, depending on who you talked to, “Free The Army” or “F–k The Army”). along with interviews Fonda and the others conducted with current soldiers and veterans, and it was released in 1972, though along with Winter Soldier, public pressure from higher ups prevented it from getting a wide release. As witnessed today, the revue-type skits are not that great – the best involve the title song written for the revue and a skit Fonda did with Steve Alaimo where they played Pat and Richard Nixon, respectively, and she tells him protesters are storming the White House; when he insists he’ll call the army, she nervously replies, “But Dick, it *is* the army!” – but the songs can be quite good (especially one Martinson sings to the soldiers), and Sutherland movingly reads from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (Sutherland appeared in the film version in 1971). Best of all, of course, are the interviews with the soldiers themselves, and contrary to the “Hanoi Jane” propaganda that has sprung up, you don’t see Fonda coercing anyone to her point of view, but really listening to what the soldiers have to say (the other actors do so as well). That, as much as anything else, makes F.T.A. worth tracking down.

The photograph that inspired “Letter to Jane”.

Plenty has been written about Fonda being attacked by the right for her stance on the Vietnam War (as well as other issues). What’s less known is that she was also attacked by the left. After she worked for Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin on Tout Va Bien, they made Letter to Jane (subtitled “An Investigation About a Still), also in 1972, in reaction to a picture of Fonda during her trip to Vietnam that appeared in the French magazine L’Express, showing her listening to someone while a Vietnamese peasant lurks in the background. With this 52-minute documentary, Godard and Gorin are out to examine the meaning behind the photo in the same way that, say, Errol Morris has examined old photos in the New York Times recently. Their goal is to attack how the Western media covered Vietnam, and, in particular, how they covered the Vietnamese people. That is certainly a laudable goal, as even when media coverage turned against the war, it was usually only talked about in terms of how American soldiers were suffering, as opposed to the Vietnamese.. Less forgivable, however, is the sense you get Godard and Gorin are blaming Fonda for all of that. The second time I watched this, I picked up on the fact Gorin, at least, admitted there was something problematic about two men ganging up on a woman like this (though he insisted that wasn’t the motivation, even though Godard and Fonda didn’t get along during the making of Tout Va Bien), but that’s not the only queasy aspect. The two of them attempt to show how Fonda’s look of sympathy in the photograph is merely a copy of other American actors’ look of sympathy (including Fonda’s father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath, which they show a still from), and is nowhere near as relevant (or as revolutionary) as the look on the peasant’s face. Again, all of that is fair enough, but again, both Godard and Gorin seem to blame that on Fonda instead of the Western media itself and the cult of celebrity in the U.S., both of which Fonda was fighting herself when trying to express her views about the war (as well as feminism and other issues). One wonders if Godard and Gorin knew of how Fonda was targeted by the Nixon administration and the FBI for her views, and whether that would have made any difference. Godard has since disowned the film, calling it terrible, but given how callous he is here (Kael called the film “offensively inhuman”, and as brilliantly made as it is, she’s not far off the mark), I somehow doubt it.

Daniel Ellsberg interviewed in “Hearts and Minds”.

The final major documentary dealing with the Vietnam War came out right before the U.S. finally pulled out of the country altogether. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), produced by Bert Schneider, is a panoramic view of the war, showing a collage of war clips, interviews with soldiers, officials, and Vietnamese (from peasants to military members), along with clips of films about other wars (the title, of course, comes from the assertion that in order to win the war, the U.S. would not only have to defeat the army, but also win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese). We also get interviews with people like Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media) and other anti-war activists. Though David himself doesn’t appear on camera, you get a sense he not only learned from Emile de Antonio about ironic juxtaposition, but that filmmakers such as Michael Moore learned from him, and that gave me an uneasy feeling while watching the film. Much of it is undeniably powerful, as when we see the Vietnamese peasants weeping over their land and families being destroyed by American bombs. Yet I felt as if Davis was too obvious in trying to push the viewer’s buttons (unlike de Antonio). And while it attempts to portray the American pathology that led to the war, some of that can also come off heavy-handed. Still, like In the Year of the Pig, it presents a history of U.S. involvement (with the added perspective that six more years brings) and it has a multiple amount of perspectives to give you a rounded portrait of just how the war was wrong from the start.


From Civil Rights to RevolutionKing: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis, Malcolm X (1972), Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Malcolm X.

One of the consequences of the Vietnam War at home is how President Johnson’s insistence on fighting the war led him to abandon his vision of a Great Society, to go beyond the civil rights legislation he helped push through in 1964 and 1965, as he and other Congressmen felt he couldn’t pay for both. This led to African-Americans losing a lot of what they’d gained, or thought they’d gain, and also helped cause unrest. Another factor that caused unrest, of course, was the assassination of two of the major African-American leaders of the time, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A documentary was produced on each of them during this era; Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis (1970) and Arnold Perl’s Malcolm X (1972). Both of them heavily rely on archival footage of the two leaders speaking, in private, and giving interviews at the time. Landau’s movie also features celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Paul Newman giving readings from texts related to the times (Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed these readings and also helped put together the film), while Perl’s movie features some (then) present-day scenes of African-life, as well as Jones’ voiceover narration of parts of Malcolm X’s autobiography (as told to Alex Haley). The testimonials in the former film were put in to help raise money for the film, so it’s understandable why they’re included, but with the exception of Belafonte and Jones’ segments, I kept wanting the movie to get back to King’s footage, not just because some of them come off as well-intentioned but patronizing, but also because King is such an electrifying figure to watch. Not only that, but the film shows King as a more complicated figure that we usually remember him as. Yes, he’s the man who preached non-violence as a form of protest, and yes, he was someone who sought, to paraphrase Gandhi, to free his fellow African-Americans from held up by guns, and to free the white policemen from holding those guns. But as we see in the documentary, which traces his career from the Montgomery bus boycott to his funeral after he was killed in Memphis, King was a consistent advocate for African-American rights in all places, was a shrewd operator, and wasn’t above giving angry talks about what was done to him and others. We see the famous speeches, including his “I have a dream” speech, but we also see, near the end, when he comes out against the Vietnam War. Likewise, if you think of Malcolm X mostly as a hate-preaching “black Muslim”, Perl’s documentary will change the way you think about him. Yes, it shows his rhetoric against white society, but it also shows how he modified his views after he was kicked out of the American Muslim church (after his infamous “chickens come home to roost” speech, and his discovery that Elijah Mohammad, the head of the American Muslim church, had fathered several children out of wedlock) and especially after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca and saw white Muslims there. While Malcolm X still preached self-defense as a viable option,he also grew to recognize how poor whites were dealing with some of the same problems African-Americans were dealing with, and that there were white who were sympathetic to his cause. Both movies, of course, end with their funerals, and reactions to them. Both of them are powerful documentaries and are well worth tracking down.

Eldridge Cleaver with director William Klein.

The Black Panther party sprung from disillusionment with the way civil rights for African-Americans were ignored when the Vietnam War began escalating, and while a big part of it was helping African-Americans with programs for schooling their children and helping the poor, it also was intended as a revolutionary movement. One of the prime leaders of the Black Panthers was Eldridge Cleaver, and he was the subject of William Klein’s documentary Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1969), while Cleaver was in exile in Algeria after ducking an attempted murder charge after he and other Black Panthers had ambushed police officers in Oakland (he had first fled to Cuba, but after Fidel Castro had discovered the CIA had infiltrated the Black Panthers, he decided he could no longer trust Cleaver). We see some of Cleaver living with his wife and child, but mostly, this has interviews with Cleaver talking about his revolutionary politics and his support of armed insurrection (this led to a split between himself and fellow Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who believed the Panthers’ insistence on violence as a tool hurt their standing with the black community at large). We also see him finding common ground with other revolutionaries in Africa. All of this romanticizing of the Marxist revolutionary groups Cleaver does may seem naive in spots (and also ironic, since in the 80’s and 90’s, Cleaver reversed course and became a conservative Republican, denouncing his past), but Cleaver, like Malcolm X, also grew towards more of an understanding towards white people, understanding not all whites were as repressive as he initially thought. Klein also has footage of the establishment’s reaction to the Panthers, particularly a government hearing about them. Whatever you think of Cleaver’s politics as expressed in the documentary, he remains a fascinating figure, and Klein does a good job capturing him.


From → Movies

  1. All of these sound like documentaries a person ought to see. Honestly, I would have started tearing up if you had included one more Vietnam documentary description. What a horrible time for so many people!

    Thanks again for this important contribution to the Classic Film History Project Blogathon. A superb series that I’ll be coming back to as I start to see some of these films.

    • Thanks, Ruth! I was lucky I got to spread those Vietnam docs all around, otherwise it would not have been a pleasant experience.

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